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Faculty Book Spotlight: Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Edited by Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson)

This semester’s faculty book spotlight features Professor Arie Dubnov, co-editor of Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Stanford University Press, 2019). Dubnov was interviewed by Alyssa Bivins, who is currently a 2nd year PhD student in the History Department at the George Washington University.Photo of the cover of Partitions

Q: What inspired you to begin this book project? 

Laura Robson and I both participated in a decolonization seminar through the Library of Congress. This seminar lasted ten years and pushed participants to think in broader comparative terms about processes of imperial disintegration during the twentieth century. Partition was one of the themes that emerged from such a study of decolonization, especially once we traced it across territories and periods. The idea for the project was planted in the seminar, as well as the tools to explore the connections among its many iterations. It inspired us to move beyond the nationalist frameworks to begin to question the conventional narratives that read partition as a natural or inevitable phenomenon.

The more we studied the history of partition, the more we became convinced that the very idea that a physical division of territory along ethno-religious lines into separate nation-states is a relatively recent phenomenon in historical terms. We also ended up this study convinced that the attempts to promote partition as a successful political "solution" to ethnic conflict were based on a rather poor reading of history. 

Q: This comprehensive transnational project brought together an impressive assembly of scholars to focus on three key instances of partition in British colonial history: Ireland, India, and Palestine. What was the process of bringing these scholars together? 

A: I am a firm believer in the importance of using more global and international approaches to history, that would complement (but not substitute) local expertise and the fine-grain knowledge that characterizes area studies. The book needed to be a collected volume rather than a traditional monograph partly because of the sheer linguistic limitations and the number of archives that had to be examined, in four corners of the globe. It is really too much for a single scholar to do properly. I was fortunate to have colleagues who were willing to think transnational and join me and my co-editor in this project! 

The initial idea was to bring the two or three top scholars on each area, put them in a room, and then see what happens. Soon enough, we realized we wanted more. We approached researchers who were not only experts with one foot firmly in their area of expertise, but also people who were willing to dirty their hands and take a risk of exploring the transnational experience. In other words, we chose scholars who were willing to move outside their comfort zone. Unlike comparative studies, which places partitioned areas side-by-side to do a compare-and-contrast exercise, the book examines the connections between these partitioned spaces, the ways in which political ideas and practices percolate into different areas. 

Q: In addition to bringing these scholars together, and editing the work with Professor Robson, you also wrote a chapter for the book about an architect of two of the partitions! As a fellow historian, I feel compelled to ask: how did your training as a historian and your work in the archives inspire this current work? Did you have any "aha" moments?

A: For me, the project was not born from a single moment, but through the historical character of Reginald Coupeland. Coupland was a prolific historian, serving as Beit Professor of Colonial History at Oxford from 1920 until 1948. Educated at Britain's most prestigious schools and holding a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford University's most elitist hub, he was a prototypical member of the Empire’s educated elite, close to policymakers and advisors. 

Early on, I realized that the name of the same individual kept reappearing in all three cases of partition! During the 1920s, he was very close to Lionel Curtis and other people who had planned the Irish partition. Next, in 1937, he was appointed a member of Lord Peel's Royal Commission on Palestine, which ended up proposing partition. Later he reappeared in India as a member of Sir Stafford Cripps' 1942 Mission to India and an author of several length reports on the future of the Raj, which resembled in structure and contents to the Peel Commission's Report. Seeing him involved in all three cases, even as a supporting actor, constituted a kind of first "aha" moment. Here’s a fellow whose fingerprints kept popping up. I called him, in a mix of fondness and mockery, my imperial Waldo. 

I thought that my life would be simple and that partition would be explained once I followed Coupland’s itineraries. Then, the second interesting revelation came. In fact, I realized, Coupland was not simply recommending the same partition solution each time. It was not simply a "copy-paste" technique. In particular, in India, he believed that a partition like Palestine's would have been unworkable and even catastrophic. That was a second "aha" moment. I realized that, by 1947, partition was an idea that had already taken on a life of its own. Ultimately, it led me to think about partition as a "traveling theory" that existed independently of any one place or thinker. This very notion of a "traveling theory," as the book mentions, came from Edward Said. We used it as the organizational structure for the sections of our book. The fact partition has a definite date of birth does not mean it remained dependent on a specific starting point. A political theory like this is always a work in progress. In new historical and political circumstances, the abstract theory must be "transplanted" and "translated"—metaphorically and literally. 

Q: Do you think the creation of these partitioned spaces was unique to the British Empire and the cases you covered?

A: First, to be clear, partition is a very particular thing that should be defined historically and analytically. When we first think about partition, most of us imagine a line that is drawn on a map. That is one essential element, of course. But border-making and partition are not synonymous. 

The second important aspect of partition is that the border it creates divides two new entities that are called nation-states. Thus, unlike borders that were made for redistricting, or cases like the territorial divisions of Poland in the eighteenth century (culminating in the disappearance of the Polish state), the three British partitions we studied became important milestones on the road to statehood. They were predicated on the idea of self-government and sovereignty. Unlike India and Pakistan, the 1948 War in Palestine ended up with only one state, Israel, rather than two, and with the Nakba, the expulsion and denial of return of Palestinian residents from the areas of the new state. 

This leads me to the third element of a partition: namely, the idea that the new ethnonational state created will be feasible only if it maintains clear majority/minority proportions. This third element is not uniquely British, but is connected to the ways in which a democratic global order was conceptualized in interwar years. The emerging League of Nations committed itself and its resources to the principle of homogeneous ethnic nation-statehood, to be accomplished with transfer—the involuntary displacement of populations, accompanied by violence if necessary. The nation-state engineered the space to correspond with the demography, and absorbed the logic of population transfers. 

The partitions of India and Palestine in 1947-8 would therefore be best defined as "package deals" that included three things: border-making, state-making, and forced displacement. Was this a uniquely British way of thinking about politics? I tend to think so, especially if we understand partition as this three-dimensional theory. But it was of course picked up and executed by non-British historical actors.

Q: So given the particular inner-workings of the British Empire, do you think that the partition lens could be used to evaluate the historical policies of other empires, such as the French or Spanish empires?

A: That’s an excellent question. With humility, I will be the first to admit that my area of knowledge on the French and Spanish Empires is more superficial. Drawing on my familiarity with the chronicles of the British Empire leads me to answer that the three partitions we covered were certainly inherently connected to what was happening in the British Empire in particular and British techniques of direct and indirect control and domination. We must remember that the British Empire was not a static, frozen structure. Instead, it was changing, adopting new modes of governance and responding to a new climate of ideas and changing political circumstances. Calls for internal imperial reform were heard loud and clear. In particular, a group of neo-imperial thinkers, publishing their essays in journals like the Round Table, were assessing how the empire was evolving and transforming itself into a British Commonwealth of Nations, or what some called the Third British Empire. In this conception, the British Empire was reimagined as a kind of modern Athenian League, with multiple independent city-states. The entities underneath the imperial umbrella were nations, but the original intention was to come up with a technique that would allow to contain them rather than promote imperial disintegration of the type we see after 1945. 

This was very British. The crown, which we see today as an empty symbol, was seen as the glue that allowed for the idea of a unified federal empire. Paradoxically, it was in this context that partitioning emerged. So British political thinking and nascent conceptions of what internationalism means were tied to this federalist imperial mode of thought. One should avoid apologia for empire. To assume that these liberal conceptions of empire were racially neutral or designed to prevent further subjugation and domination would be historically inaccurate and morally questionable. British imperial thinkers were trying to figure out how to maintain difference within the empire first and foremost in order to keep the empire up and running. The slogan they loved using was "diversity within unity"—so how to allow multiple national groups to coexist within the Empire. It sounds beautiful, but of course what they care about is how to make sure that the Empire continued to prosper.

That said, I would love to see comparative work looking at the Spanish and French colonial worlds. My familiarity with the literature produced by scholars studying the French colonial world makes me think that despite obvious similarities they were running things differently. Also, when people have asked us why we didn't write more about Cyprus, or the two Germanys, the Korean War etc., I have to say there were just limits on what we could do. If our project were to inspire or serve as a point of departure for future research into other colonial and postcolonial spaces, I would be delighted to see it, even if these future studies would prove me wrong. If we need to refine our definition because of it, that would be amazing! It is not a completed discussion, but an ongoing one.

Q: The question of partition is particularly timely, you noted in your book, because it is still floated as a potential policy today, and the parallels between the nations covered in your book continue to exist! One political incident involving two of the "partition spaces" in your book occurred in late November of this year, when it was leaked that India's consul general in NYC suggested that India could follow an Israeli model in Kashmir. Since your book has suggested historical parallels between these many countries, do you think there are also future parallels for foreign policy solutions or cautions?

I might come out much more optimistic in this answer than I am in practice! How can one explain the similarity between contemporary India and Israel? And what is the historical perspective we need to understand the sudden rapprochement between Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel and India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi? I tried to answer some of these questions in an essay I entitled "Notes on the Zionist Passage to India," which I could not summarize here with due diligence. 

There is ample evidence to show that Narendra Modi, who promotes a much more assertive Hindu nationalism, is looking in a very positive way at Netanyahu's Israel. Both of them are hyper-nationalist, populist, and neoliberal leaders. Both present themselves as strong leaders who are at the forefront of the war against "global terrorism" as well as champions of globalization and a free-market economy. Both follow the logic of "open markets – closed cultures," a handy catchphrase I borrow from Arjun Appadurai. Many find it difficult to see that there is no contradiction between the cultivation of an uncompromising nationalist leadership style, which is accompanied by a clear anti-Muslim sentiment, and the desire to open their countries to foreign investments and promote high-tech initiatives. 

There is a long and interesting history between the two countries. It of course is not linear, as India and Israel were not always the best of friends—that part is a recent phenomenon. Bear in mind that there are important, positive things they could learn from each other instead: for example, India is the world's largest democracy, it has a progressive constitution, and it has minority protections built into its constitution. Sadly, many of these principles are challenged and even eroded today. And you are right that politicians and activists in India and Israel do continue to look to each other for parallels today. Unfortunately, all too often what each side sees as "the virtues" of the other side, is far removed from what progressive observers would consider to be a positive model worthy of imitation. India’s army, for example, imports military equipment and knowledge from Israel, and tries to learn from the Israeli security apparatus how to use drones and conduct "surgical strikes." On the other side, Messianic Jews are looking at India for precedents. Those who followed the Ayodhya dispute—a contested religious site which is regarded among Hindus to be the birthplace of Rama but is also a site of a Muslim mosque—can guess where all this goes. After long years of dispute, India's Supreme Court ruled in November 2019 that the ancient Hindu Temple will be rebuilt, and the mosque relocated elsewhere. Within less than a week, a group of Messianic Jews who covet to rebuild the Jewish Temple on the site of the Al Aqsa Compound on the Temple Mount / Haram el-Sharif began citing this Indian ruling as paving the way for their plan. Analogies and parallels, therefore, work both ways, and they outlived the British empire, which provided in the past the shared framework for Jewish and Hindu nationalists. Evidently, comparative gazes and translocal imitations could serve multiple political agendas. 

I am a historian, not a political scientist or a policy advisor, so I do not pretend to offer model to explain the present and predict the future. I only wish to offer a historical perspective. I did not anticipate that using partition as a lens would help highlight a lot of what makes the newspaper headlines in contemporary politics in post-partition spaces. Look at the way the "Irish question" turned out to be, one of the stumbling blocks of Brexit negotiations, look at Kashmir. We are living in "interesting times," as the famous curse-turned-phrase goes. It is one of the privileges and duties of historians to discuss the implications of their learning for concerns and disputes in the present—including contemporary controversies about past events. Thank you for providing me with an opportunity to reflect on my project and to share some of my historical insights and interpretations with a wider IMES community!

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